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The Death of Migrant Domestic Workers

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epa02787707 Indonesian migrant worker activists wearing black t-shirts, hold placards during a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 21 June 2011. Dozens of activists staged a protest over the beheading of Indonesian housemaid Ruyati binti Satubi in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities executed Ruyati after the supreme court there issued a ruling that confirmed the death penalty for the Indonesian housemaid, who was found guilty of murdering her employer, Khairiya binti Hamid Mijlid, last year.  EPA/MAST IRHAM
epa02787707 Indonesian migrant worker activists wearing black t-shirts, hold placards during a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 21 June 2011. Dozens of activists staged a protest over the beheading of Indonesian housemaid Ruyati binti Satubi in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities executed Ruyati after the supreme court there issued a ruling that confirmed the death penalty for the Indonesian housemaid, who was found guilty of murdering her employer, Khairiya binti Hamid Mijlid, last year. EPA/MAST IRHAM

The wealthy of Asia, especially in the Middle East, often hire southeast Asian domestic workers, especially from the Philippines. Like with the relationship between Latin America and the United States, remittances play a big part in the economy of these poorer nations. But we have been learning a lot about how the oil elites of the Arabian peninsula treat foreign workers thanks to the World Cup in Qatar. If anything though, the stories of those workers, as utterly horrifying as they may be, pale in comparison to the torture and violence committed on the workers brought into the homes of the uber-wealthy. This is just a brief excerpt from this gruesome report:

According to the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation, domestic workers are some of the most likely to face abuse and exploitation in their place of work. A number of cases in the past few weeks have made international headlines: an Indian domestic worker who had her arm chopped off, allegedly by her employer when she asked for her wages; a Saudi diplomat who reportedly tortured and raped his Nepalese domestic workers; another Saudi man videoed apparently molesting his foreign maid as she worked in the family kitchen. But these are just the stories we hear about; there are many more cases, documented by human rights groups, in which women have been gang-raped, burned with oil, starved, mutilated with acid or literally worked to death.

In the Gulf, the International Trade Union Confederation says that 2.4 million domestic workers are facing conditions of slavery. Yet moving abroad to find work as a domestic worker is a calculated risk that millions of women such as Marilyn take every year.

For a largely invisible workforce, domestic workers wield serious economic clout. Collectively, they account for 4% of total global employment and nearly 8% of total female employment. There are 1.5 million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia alone, and recruitment agencies fly in 40,000 women a month to keep up with demand. Muslim women from the Philippines are considered the highest calibre of workers in many richer households.

I don’t do a lot of trigger warnings, but this article gets a lot harder to read than what I excerpted. Incredibly awful.

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  • Nice people those Saudis. Glad I almost got my ass shot off defending them.

    • DrDick

      Have to say that is one of the things that drives me nuts about our foreign policy. For all the hysteria over Iran, the Saudis have done far more to export militant, regressive Islam and have actively supported the worst actors in that part of the world. Their is no real upside for us in the alliance.

    • ColBatGuano

      The evidence that the Gulf States, combined with our dependence on oil, are the root of a substantial proportion of our current problems is pretty overwhelming. From the financing of Islamic extremism to global warming to this travesty it seems obvious that continuing to turn a blind eye isn’t in our best interest. Unless of course you are an oil company executive.

    • JohnT

      Absolutely. In a just world the Saudi government would be sitting right next to the North Koreans in the ‘bastards we only talk to under protest’ box, with the Emiratis, Bahrainis and Qataris in the next level up with the Iranians in the ‘people we will deal with but who do some seriously unpleasant things’.

      I think the true nature of large swathes of Saudi society is demonstrated in the way they treat the help, as documented here. The true sympathies of the leadership are demonstrated by the way they found a couple of fighters to occasionally harass Islamic State on their northern border but an entire air force to bomb the Yemenis back into the Stone Age.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        It is not of course just the Gulf States that treat migrant labor horribly. The poor treatment of maids from Sri Lanka and Ethiopia working for the rich of Lebanon has been an ongoing issue for some years now as well.

        • JohnT

          Could well be – I’m afraid I’ve never been to Lebanon though!
          I guess I care more about the Gulf states because it upsets me that Western governments like my own fawn all over the Gulf Arab monarchs and pretend they’re anything other than a bunch of fundamentalist despots with desperately racist labour markets and a habit of funding anyone who’ll combine a medieval view of women and with a literal reading of the Quran.
          To my knowledge they don’t extend the same ‘courtesy’ to the Lebanese (non)government

  • DrDick

    I talk about this in both my race and ethnicity class and my gender class. Women make a huge portion of expat workers around the world and they are subject to even worse conditions than the men in places like Qatar are.

  • Anna in PDX

    I was in the U.S. Foreign Service for five years in the mid 90s, and one of those years was spent in Saudi Arabia. It is a really horrific country. It was common practice to take the domestic help’s pasports from them and keep them locked up. They were basically without recourse, and non household labor was also housed in barracks and their passports held away from them, it was a lot like slavery if you ask me. The Phillippine Embassy was constantly trying to help maids and other laborers who were trying to flee, or get paid, or get their passports back. The sexual abuse was also rampant enough to be a thing that was talked about a lot. But these poor countries depended so much on remittances from these workers in these gulf countries (and the other countries were not known for being substantially different/better than KSA) that their governments were afraid to raise the issue very far.

    I could not stand living there. I “curtailed” from there and was sent to Nigeria, which although it was having a tough time of it at that point (terrible dictatorship of Sani Abacha) I much preferred my posting there. I just have nothing good to say about KSA. it is my least favorite country of all time.

    • Anna in PDX

      Jesus. I just read the article. God, what a country. I made my first comment before I read it.

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